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The Meaning of Dignity

Author: Simon Duffy

The phrase ‘dying with dignity’ has, unfortunately, been misused by those who advocate assisted suicide or even euthanasia. This is an abuse of the true meaning of dignity and it disguises a troubling trend towards the devaluing of human life. The word dignity comes from the Latin word 'dignus' which means worth or value. It is a helpful term when it is used to remind us of our essential value as human beings. Each human life is of equal value, of equal dignity.

We have this dignity when are born, and we have it right up until the time we die. We have dignity while we sleep and we have dignity while we are awake. We have dignity when we are at our most rational and we have dignity when we are confused. We have dignity when we are calm and when we are in pain. Our essential worth as human beings does not change with the inevitable ups and downs of life.

The problem for human beings is that while human dignity is a basic moral fact, it is a fact that it is too easy to forget. We are often tempted to only value some kinds of people or to value only some parts of human life. Often prejudice, fear or confusion causes us to treat some people as if they lacked dignity. Often it is disabled people or older people who are treated as if they lacked this dignity.

We are even tempted to hurry ourselves, or other people, towards death because we don’t value the kind of life that can precede death. One reason for this may be that we are frightened of being confused or being in pain; another may be that we are frightened of seeing those we love being confused or in pain. So ‘moving things on’ a little more quickly may seems a natural step; but it is actually a dreadful assault upon the value of human life. It is murder or it is suicide.

This temptation may have increased as society has changed and as modern medicine and the hospital has become central our lives. In the recent report, Dying with Dignity, from The Centre for Welfare Reform we found that only 9% of deaths were unexpected. For the 91% of expected deaths the cause of death was split quite evenly between cancer, chronic disease or frailty. However only 17% of deaths were at home. Over 75% deaths were in a hospital or in a care home. Death today has become harsher and less human.

Dignity is harder to feel when we are powerless, in a foreign environment, surrounded by strangers. In a hospital everyone is, quite properly, in a hurry. Their attention needs to be spread between many different people and those who are going to die may not be of the same priority. Sadly we also find that if you are older, or have a disability, you may even get worse treatment simply because your life is not valued by professionals in the same way as it is by others.

Of course, when we are dying, we will still want expert advice, good pain relief and care; but these things can be provided at home where people can be with their family, in their own place, surrounded by their own things. In fact we found that support at home was 20% of the cost of support in hospital.

The appearance of dignity may not to be increased by ‘heroic measures’ to keep people alive at any costs; but dignity is certainly not to be found in hurrying people towards their deaths through assisted suicide or negligence. Dignity is always there, in all human life; but it is easier to see that dignity when people are seen as full human beings with families, homes, roles and interests - as whole people, not just as patients taking up a bed.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Meaning of Dignity © Simon Duffy 2011.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.